Year of the Ratbag
2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse. But in our house, it feels more like the Year of the Ratbag. ‘Ratbag’ is Kiwi slang for mischievous child. The first time I recall hearing that term was in church, when our priest referred to kids (possibly his) as ‘ratbags.’ It sounded slanderous, but the longer I’ve lived in New Zealand, the more normal ‘ratbags’ seems – kind of like calling children ‘rugrats,’ in the States.
My eight-year-old son, Finley (or Finn-bo, or Finn, or whatever we're calling him these days), is the epitome of ratbag. With his number four clippered hair (courtesy of my husband, his stepdad, Pete), and a gap-toothed grin, he oozes ratbag sensibility. Or lack of sensibility. He’s still not a great sport – trying to make up rules to games that favor him: Finn swiped Pete in the face while they were playing handball in the driveway after Pete told Finley he’d lost the point. Finn cried. Ratbag.
Finley asked for another roll at dinner the other night (‘with lots of butter, please!’) after everyone else had finished eating. He slowly savored his bread while the rest of us cleaned up. Ratbag. He searched frantically the next morning for a ball to bring to school when he should’ve been doing something meaningful, like brush his teeth, or (for once) put on underwear. The kid is Constant Commando. Ratbag.
Finn loves parading naked in his wiry little bod. A couple weeks ago, just after he’d had a shower, I sat on Finley’s bed while he searched for pajamas. Suddenly, Finn turned and started a tiny hip buck that sent his Little Man flip-flopping like a trout in a bucket. “Zumba, Zumba, Zumba…” he sang. Resistance was futile. “Finley,” I laughed. “Get dressed.” “Zumba, Zumba, Zumba,” he replied.
I’m mindful that someday, both kids will leave us and start new lives with loves of their own. Finley has already started planning. “I want to have kids,” he’s told me. “Two or maybe four. How does that happen again?” I repeat what I’ve already explained several times, about the penis and the vagina, sperm and egg… Instead of snickering, Finley looks at me earnestly, asking, “How many times do I hafta put it in? Once? Twice? I wanna make sure I get kids….”
Maybe Finn will woo his future bride by singing. Only recently have we started noticing Finley’s strong set of lungs is good for something other than yelling. His favorite song is a version of The Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams, which he belts with vibrato:
These people are made a’ me…
Made a’ me to disagree…
He asked me what the real words were, and when I sang them, he said, “I don’t get it. Why do they want to be abused?”
For many years, I wondered what atrocity I’d committed to deserve a Ratbag like Finley. He’d whine and cry, trying to convince me to buy him something, or give him another cookie, or whatever… He’d fight Fiona and snicker when I called him on it. He still does that stuff. But the incidents are either dwindling in number or duration, or I’m more tolerant because I have a supportive husband, or because Finley’s honing his charms. All of those. Finn bats his long fringe of eyelashes, blinks those baby blues like a character in a Pixar movie with saucer-sized eyes. I stare at them. At his freckled nose. You charmer. Now, go clean your room.
More and more, I marvel at his Finn-ness. Finn-bo's a smart cookie who learns quickly - when he wants to. I’m jealous. I was never an eight-year-old boy with oceans of confidence (“Why do I need to keep going to tennis club, anyway? I’m already good at playing,” Finley said when I asked him if he wanted to continue one of his many sports). Finn stood up on a surfboard the first time he tried; he made it onto a competitive soccer team this year; he’s starting to play simple songs on guitar after just a few lessons; he works above national standards in reading, writing and math. Excels at art. Ratbag.
While he’s probably not tops in his class, the best player on the soccer field or the first to cross the line in a race, he’s near the front of the pack. Finn-bo’s competitive streak has him running, red-faced, trying to top the other kids. Or me. On the beach, Finley says, “Let’s race.” We do, and the kid beats me in a short sprint. “I wasted you, Mom,” he says.